In November of 1983, Sleepaway Camp, a low-budget horror film written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, hit the big screens in New York City. The film’s classic dialogue, young cast, satisfying kills, and shocking conclusion earned word-of-mouth approval among fans. Eventually, Sleepaway Camp became a video rental smash and established itself as a cult favorite.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the film and we are very pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Karen Fields, who portrays Judy, one of the most memorable mean girls in the genre. To some, Sleepaway Camp is just a dumb 80s slasher, but to many, it is our cinematic security blanket, and the character of Judy is tightly woven into this. Here, Karen is kind enough to discuss her involvement with the 80s staple, the legacy of the movie, her character, and how important it is for her that ALL fans be embraced.
PopHorror: First and foremost, thank you so very much for taking the time to answer some questions. It truly is a pleasure to engage with the one-and-only Judy from Sleepaway Camp – a movie that continues to earn fans four decades later. How did this journey begin with you? How did you come across the part of Judy and what did you think of the script when you initially read it?
Karen Fields: My agent got me the audition for Sleepaway Camp. It was in Manhattan at NYU film school where Robert went, and it was an improv audition, so there was no preparation and no script. Robert described the character Judy; basically a dramatic, obnoxious, insecure, stuck-up teenager, and asked me to improv the scene in the bunk when Angela is staring at Judy. I just got a person in my mind who I would have loved to have told off and went for it. It was a really fun audition. When I was leaving, some people asked me how I did, and I told them I thought it went well and that I felt really comfortable with Robert. I didn’t know that I was speaking with Robert’s girlfriend and friends, but my response probably worked in my favor. That was my only audition. As most people know, Robert first hired Jane Krakowski for the role of Judy, but Jane, or her parents, read the script, and she ended up turning down the role, and I ended up being Judy! Looking back, I think Robert didn’t want me, or my parents, to read the script in case we had reservations about it. So, the first time I got the script was when I arrived on location.
PopHorror: Judy is one of the quintessential bitches of horror for many fans, with memes and cosplays aplenty. I know that it wasn’t until very recently that you began appearing at conventions. If I’m correct, Days of the Dead in Las Vegas was an auspicious occasion, marking a reunion between many of you key cast members. The panel you were all part of there was honestly one of the most enjoyable I’ve had the pleasure of attending. What was it like coming back together to celebrate Sleepaway Camp and meet fans?
Karen Fields: Celebrating with the cast and fans was an amazing experience! I had seen Felissa and Kathy at Spooky Empire several years ago, and on Zoom for a script reading, but seeing them again, and seeing Chris and Tom after forty years, and having the five of us all together after forty years, was incredibly special. I can’t explain why, but our cast truly has a bond. We all got along during filming, and I think we all feel blessed that our little movie has become such a cult classic. I’m certain none of us ever expected this to happen. It’s beyond good fortune! As for the fans, I was blown away by the warmth of the horror community at large, and the dedication and love that poured forth from Sleepaway Camp fans was something I never could have imagined. It’s mind-blowing to me that we have fans who discovered the movie years ago and still love it and rewatch it, and that new generations have become fans. Being at Days of the Dead made me understand why people go from one convention to the next and the next. It’s like being with a huge, loving family!
PopHorror: This year marks an important milestone for Sleepaway Camp – 40 years! Did you ever think you’d be sitting here today discussing your time being a part of it?
Karen Fields: Absolutely not! It’s taken me a long time to grasp the magnitude of this movie and to embrace this gift. I first saw the movie in Manhattan with my parents and older brother and as I recall, they said nothing when the movie was over. We went home and that was it. As years passed, I came to understand that perhaps my parents were shocked by the end of the movie and didn’t know how to discuss it with their teenage daughter and – most likely – my foul-mouthed, sexual character and the curling iron scene, were not what they expected. At the time, and for years, their response, or rather, lack of response, affected me. I am, however, extremely proud of our movie, and thrilled that so many people feel connected to it. Never in a million years would I have believed that people would value this movie so much and that I would be so fortunate to be part of something that lives on.
PopHorror: I mentioned before that the panel at Days of the Dead was fantastic, and the connection between you and your castmates was so genuine, even after all these years. There was tons of laughter, but there was also a moment where it was mentioned, that the large number of LGBTQIA+ fans are wholeheartedly embraced, and you took the opportunity to speak very candidly. You shared that you are in fact a counselor for trans youth and have a very deep connection to all of this. Can you tell us a bit more about your work in the community and what you feel is the greatest concern currently to those kids?
Karen Fields: A very big part of why I’m able to embrace this movie and my good fortune, is because it’s relevant to my life today. My son is a huge horror fan, and he’s always been my biggest fan. Any opportunity he gets to tell someone that his mom is Judy, he tells them. My son is also transgender, which has made this movie more important to me, especially as it’s opened the door in terms of providing me with a platform to stand up for LGBTQIA+ rights. I’m extremely proud of my son for living his truth, and I know that many parents don’t feel the same, and therefore many kids are suffering. I accept the fact that not everyone is going to understand the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly the transgender community, and that’s ok. They don’t need to understand, they just need to be respectful and let live! I actually became a volunteer crisis counselor with the Trevor Project before my son came out as transgender. Being a volunteer with this organization was just something that called to me. For those who aren’t familiar with the Trevor Project, it is a 24/7 crisis support service for LGBTQIA+ young people. Thirteen to twenty-four-year-olds can call or text and chat about coming out, being bullied, their relationships with family and friends, dysphoria, self-harm, or basically anything they want to discuss. If anyone is reading this and needs support, the phone number is 1-866-488-7386. Volunteers are there to provide support! I’m also a volunteer court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for foster kids. I currently advocate for a trans female to male seventeen-year-old. As far as my greatest concern for these teens and young adults, first and foremost, it’s that they don’t die by suicide. All the anti-trans laws, book bans, laws limiting participation in sports and free speech, and general discrimination can take a huge toll on young people. I hope these teens and young adults can find some icons to look up to, or music they relate to, or any creative and self-affirming means to help them make it through dark times. I also hope they’re aware that many open-hearted, accepting, and supportive people are thinking of them and fighting to make change!
PopHorror: I’ve seen some debate whether or not Sleepaway Camp negatively portrays members of the trans community. What would you like to say to those that believe the movie casts a harmful shadow?
Karen Fields: I would never tell anyone that their feelings about the movie are invalid, but as I see it, Peter was forced to present as female, and we’re actually never told how Peter feels about gender, or how he, or she, or they, define themself. Gender can only be defined by one’s own self, so in essence, the movie can be stating that a person must be allowed to be who they really are. Angela isn’t killing because she’s transgender, Peter is killing because no one allowed him to express his, or her, or their, identity. I don’t know Robert’s intentions, but when movies depict socially aberrant behavior – aberrant in the case of Peter/Angela killing people, or the pedophile Artie, or Judy who asks, “What are you queer or something?” – it’s not because the movie is sanctioning that behavior, it’s because the movie is pointing out evil and teaching us that those are characters we should not emulate.
PopHorror: Did you ever watch Sleepaway Camp for fun over the years, or did you disconnect yourself from the movie? When was the last time you sat with a bowl of popcorn and enjoyed it?
Karen Fields: I did not watch Sleepaway Camp through the years, but I recently sat down and watched the film before Days of the Dead. Besides seeing myself on screen, which was somewhat uncomfortable, I enjoyed it. It’s got creepy music, amazing make-up (I especially love Artie’s pulsating and oozing blisters) creative kills, and fun fashion. Watching it brought back a happy experience!
PopHorror: Did you take anything home with you from filming; a prop, script, piece of wardrobe? If not, what do you wish you would’ve swiped from set?
Karen Fields: I have my script, the Camp Arawak tee shirt I wore in the movie, daily call sheets that note what scene is being filmed, who is needed on set and at what time, and the daily weather report. I even saved my hotel phone bill, which is clearly a relic as everyone has had cell phones for decades now! I wanted to take the green football shirt I wore in the curling iron scene, but they wouldn’t let me have it. I definitely should have swiped it!
PopHorror: Do you still rock a side ponytail for the hell of it?
Karen Fields: The only time I get to rock a side ponytail is at conventions for photo ops, which is totally awesome because I get to feel like a teenager again!
PopHorror: I love to ask everyone this. If you could program a double feature, what two movies make your bill and why those? Any two flicks!
Karen Fields: My son has been giving me lists of horror movies for quite a while, and I’ve been watching a horror movie almost every day for a year now. I’ve become a big horror fan! There are so many good films with deep and relevant messages. Among my recent favorites are Seed of Chucky and The Final Girls. I love Seed of Chucky because of the character Glen/Glenda. They’re such a beautiful,naïve, yet straightforward, character. I love that an important topic, gender, was addressed in such a fun film. I also love Seed of Chucky because of Jennifer Tilly. She’s hysterical. I love that she makes fun of herself. She’s a great example of self-acceptance. I also love her voice! My other recent favorite is The Final Girls. It really touched me because, like the mom, I was in a cult classic horror movie, and like the mom, I would love to act in more movies, and like the daughter in the movie, my son is supportive of me and a big fan of mine. I see my life in both of these movies, and I would love to indulge and watch them in a double feature!
We would like to thank Karen for her time and for discussing not only her experiences with Sleepaway Camp but her honesty and dedication to helping make the world more welcoming.
Sleepaway Camp is currently streaming on Tubi, Peacock, and Amazon Prime, and if you don’t own it yet, grab yourself a Shout! Factory Blu-ray Collector’s Edition copy!